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Remembering Our Affliction
September 8, 2002
by Tony Grant
"Looking back, I realize it was the beautiful day that killed us." These are the words of Richard Picciotto, a grizzled and grieving New York City fire battalion commander. His book, Last Man Down, tells the story of Picciotto's four hours trapped in the rubble of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Picciotto believes that if it had been gray or foggy or overcast on September 11, 2001, the terrorists could not have flown those planes, not on that day, anyway. But all up and down the East Coast it was the same: still winds, blue skies, not a cloud in sight. Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. were all enjoying a gorgeous, late-summer day. How well we rememberthe beauty of the day, and the horror of the events. On September 11, 2021, will you remember where you were twenty years earlier? Will you recall that it was on a Tuesday? Will you still have that mental picture of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center? I think so because more than a plane that crashed that day. Our smug self-assurance that assumed that it could not happen here also came crashing down.
Max Lucado visited Manhattan on September 21, just ten days after the terrorist attack. While he was there, a friend asked a taxi driver how the man had been affected by the tragedy. The driver responded: "I keep getting lost. I typically could always look up at the towers and get my bearings. And now I can't get my bearings anymore."
Lucado says, "Of course, he meant that from a purely pragmatic, geographical sense. But I really think that emotionally and spiritually people are having a hard time getting their bearings, because where we have looked for our bearings is no longer there. The unthinkable and impossible has happened. It's going to have a profound, profound impact on the paradigm or worldview of our country." [see Kristi Rector, "When there are no words," Rev., January-February 2002, 54.]
In the heat of the moment, Lucado probably overstated the impact of 9/11. A year later not much evidence exists that there has been a profound change in the worldview of Americans. Church attendance is about what it was before 9/11; the Osbornes are Americas TV family; In some recent elections, the numbers of voters actually declined. Nevertheless, for all that, 9/11 had its impact. And today, as we approach the first anniversary, we cannot help but remember, but as Christians, we do not gather to remember in the sense of simply recollecting an important historical event.
Our approach is rooted in the biblical idea of remembrance. It is the approach that Jesus took when he instituted the Lord's Supper saying, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). In the Christian faith, remembrance brings an event from the past into the present; it recalls an event in such a way that it has a powerful effect on the here and now.
Think of communion, the meal that reminds us of the gruesome, gory death of the Son of God, the tragic breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood. When we remember Jesus at his table, we believe that he is present with us now, present in a powerful way, transforming our todays and our tomorrows.
Something similar should happen now. As we remember September 11, we focus on how the events of last year can shape this year, and how our memory of the past can transform our vision of the future.
This process begins with deep, personal identification. Are you aware that there is a singing group called "I Am the World Trade Center"? They are a New York electronic duo who were in existence long before September 11, and they chose their name because the twin towers represented a number of important things to them. Explained group member Daniel Geller, "Their giant presence on the skyline reminded us every day of what an amazing and overwhelming place we are living in." Also, the two towers, equal and independent, yet still one entity, were a metaphor for the relationship Geller and his partner Amy Dykes developed both personally and professionally.
Out of respect for those who lost so much in the tragedy, the group has shortened its name to "I Am The ...." But Geller says that "the name and symbol will still live with us and we hope that one day we can use our entire name, which we are so proud of." They are proud, and they should be. They have identified themselves with something amazing and overwhelming.
The web of relationships with those who were in some way involved in the events of 9/11 stretches not only across America, but around the globe. And even if we have no immediate connection to those events, we feel a deep kinship with those who do: They are our brothers and sisters. Moreover, all of us have at one time or another experienced loss, pain and wounding. We know what it is like when the heart is bleeding. Remembrance begins with deep, personal identification. It begins with recalling the affliction of our brothers and sisters, and making their pain our own.
First Fruits Offering
In today's Scripture passage from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are given specific instructions on how they are to make offerings to God in the promised land. The basic theme of Deuteronomy is the reaffirmation of the covenant commitment between God and the people of Israel, a theme that is hinted at by the literal meaning of Deuteronomy, "second law." The laws of the book of Exodus are not simply repeated here, they are reinterpreted in contemporary terms, and this is done so than the promises and demands of covenant life can be embraced by every worshiping Israelite, in every time and place. Nowhere is this reinterpretation and application made clearer than in chapter 26, where Israelites in the promised land are challenged to make a personal identification with their ancestors who had suffered affliction in Egypt, before being liberated by God.
The code of Deuteronomy, a painstaking listing of statutes and ordinances given by God to Moses, begins in chapter 12 and formally concludes in chapter 26 where, in v1, the entire nature and identity of a whole people are abruptly changedthey "have come into the land." The first fruits offering called for is thus nothing less than the people's recognition of their transformation from homeless wanderers to a people of the land. The first fruits offerings are demonstrations of thanksgiving and obedience characteristic of those who have been redeemed and provided for by God. The phrase "When you have come into the land" is not a statement about geography. It is a promise and affirmation of salvation.
The commandment itself is simple. At harvest time "some of the first of all the fruit of the ground" is to be offered to the Lord as an expression of the gratitude and joy. Verses 3 and 4 give some specific liturgical instruction, directing the individual to carry the first fruits offered in a basket and to deliver that basket into the hands of the priest.
And they have a creed that they recite as they give their offering. The creed stresses above all else that the fathers and mothers of Israel were wanderers. They were like a "wandering Aramean." This is a specific reference to Jacob, who spent so many years working for his uncle, "Laban the Aramean" (Genesis 25:20), that he took on the identity of the Aramean people
Next, this confession elaborates on the time spent in Egypt. On the one hand, by going down into Egypt, the people survived a terrible famine that gripped the rest of the region. It is also in Egypt that the first of God's promises to Abraham and Sarah begins to come truea tiny group of people quickly grows into a thriving population. But Egypt is also the site of slavery and oppression, of unbearable conditions and abuse.
Note that the person giving the offering makes a personal identification with his ancestors, saying, "When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us" (v. 6)--despite the fact that the speaker may be generations removed from the original experience of suffering. The Israelites are not talking about Jacob anymore, they are talking about themselves. Even though none of these residents of the promised land experienced any of this affliction themselves, they remember it, and when they remember it, they make the pain of their ancestors their own. By remembering, they bring an event from the past into the present, and they do it in such a way that it has a powerful effect on the here and now.
They are saying, "I, too, am a slave in Egypt," much like the students in the aftermath of the Columbine high school shooting, said, "I am Columbine." Whenever we begin with a deep, personal identification, we remember the past in a way that transforms the present. Thus, we say, I am the World Trade Center, I am the Pentagon. Those people who died, those people who suffered. I am one with them.
And as I suffer with them, we call out to God together, and God hears and responds to our cry. That is the miracle--that God hears the cries of his people and brings his power, his "mighty hand and an outstretched arm," to bear on our situation.
In Deut. 26, the ultimate result of this divine intervention was the final reason for this thankful creedthat God "brought us into this place and gave us this land" (v. 9). As the subject circles back to the land, the tithe of first fruits is again elaborated. The reason for offering these testimonials of thanksgiving becomes even more clear. Only one who has been homeless, only one who has been a slave, only one who has been impoverished, can really appreciate the miracle that those first fruits representa homeland and a harvest that is theirs to enjoy and to bestow.
The creed and the offering of the first fruits tell of thanksgiving for the land, for deliverance and for the type of relationship the Israelites enjoy with God. As the creed expresses memory of both suffering and blessing, it expresses nothing less than the faith of a people and the providence of their God. Faith acted out in demonstrations of obedience, trust and gratitude is what the gift of the first fruits truly represents.
We Are Not Alone
The Israelites were challenged to remember their affliction, just as we are today. And when they do, they discover that they are not alone in their pain and suffering. No, they report that when they cried to the Lord, "the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders" (vv. 7-8).
The people of God are never alone in their affliction. Not in ancient Israel. Not in the United States today. When God's people cry to the Lord, God hears us voice and delivers us with a mighty hand.
Three Lessons of 9/11
This is the first lesson of September 11, a lesson for today and for tomorrow: nothing can destroy us as long as we put our faith in God.
Sure, we can be treated harshly and afflicted. We can be attacked by planes in the sky and anthrax in the mail. We can suffer the deaths of thousands of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. But when we cry to the Lord, God hears and God responds. This is a rock-solid, foundational truth, dating back at least to the affliction of our ancestors in Egypt. It is so important for us to remember this, and by remembering it to make it real and active in our daily lives.
Notice, too, that the Israelites are challenged to recall that it was God who brought them into the Promised Land, "a land flowing with milk and honey" (v. 9). Their land has come to them as a gift, and they are to treasure it and care for it and protect it as though it were a precious inheritance. The same is true for us, as we reflect on the condition of our nation today. Are we treating it as a valuable gift, or are we taking it for granted? Are we treasuring it, or are we abusing it? Are we caring for it, or are we neglecting it? Are we protecting it, or are we exposing it to internal and external dangers?
The second lesson of September 11, for the present and the future is gratitude and generosity. Unless we consider this nation to be a precious gift from God, one with priceless freedoms and responsibilities and opportunities and resources, then we will lose one of the great treasures of our lives.
Today's Scripture reminds us that we have a responsibility to respond to God's generosity with gifts of our own. It says, You shall set your offering down before the Lord. "Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you" (vv. 10-11). Note here that even ancient Israel was a thoroughly multicultural society, like our own. The celebration that follows gift-giving was to include not just Israelites, but also "the aliens who reside among you."
The challenge for us today, even in the face of terrorist threats, is to remain a generous people. As Christians in America, we've been blessed by God, and so we are called to be a blessing to others, in bad times as well as good. In ancient Israel, gifts were required for the upkeep of the sanctuary servants, but also for three categories of needy persons: resident aliens, orphans, and widows (v. 12). Few human needs have changed in the past three thousand years, and our generous giving is still required if we are going to live in a global community in which the needs of the destitute are met.
The third lesson of September 11 is justice. Unless we care for the poor of this world, and work for social justice, anger between classes and nations will continue, and that can give rise to terrorist activity. As has been so clear in Israel this year, there can be no peace without justice, and no harmony without concern for human life, no love without God.
Trust in God
Last year, on Friday, September 14, at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service at Washington's National Cathedral, Billy Graham said "Yes, our nation has been attacked, buildings destroyed, lives lost. But now we have a choice: whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation; or whether we choose to become stronger through all the struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation. And I believe that we're in the process of starting to rebuild on that foundation. That foundation is our trust in God."
One year ago, we woke up to a beautiful day, and it nearly killed us. Today, as we remember those horrors, we can embrace the lessons of the day, renew our faith in God and rededicate ourselves to being his people. With the help of our Lord, the beautiful days to come will be full of life, not death. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 09/18/02